Author Interview: Caitlin Kelly, Author of Malled

Malled by Caitlin Kelly

When journalism wasn’t a steady job anymore, Caitlin Kelly earned some extra money by working as a part-time sales assistant in an outdoor clothes store. She was in for some surprises.

Today, I’m interviewing Caitlin Kelly about her experiences as a shop assistant. My review of her book was posted yesterday.

Author interview: Caitlin Kelly

Caitlin’s story is really interesting and the book was a good read. So I was pleased that Caitlin was willing to answer some questions that I had after reading the book.

Caitlin, thank you for agreeing to talk about your book on my blog. My first question is: Did you take the retail job with the idea of writing a book about it, maybe in the back of your mind?

Caitlin Kelly, author of Malled

I never intended to write a book, even after several friends who are writers insisted from Day One it could become one. I did, just in case, keep some detailed notes for the first few months, which was fortunate, as I would have forgotten a lot of those crucial details. I took the job because I needed a steady source of income, even the $200-300 a month I made in the store. I only sold the book in September 2009 and had started working retail in September 2007.

What was the biggest eye opener for you when you started working at the store?

There were a few big eye-openers. The physicality of it: it’s hard, sweaty work! It takes stamina to stay on your feet for 4-6 hours at a stretch. I really disliked the constant surveillance by cameras. And I was shocked at how unkind some customers could be — and how fun others were.

What are you doing now? Any more retail for you? Ever?

Right now I am working hard to promote the book, doing a lot of interviews and radio and public events. I hope to write my next book about work as well. I’m speaking to retail executives and students for the next few months in New York, Toronto and Minneapolis. I’d be interested in working within retail, perhaps as a coach or trainer or consultant, but not on the sales floor necessarily. The wages, in most jobs, are just too low.

Did you gain any new skills from working at the store?

New skills….mostly being much less fearful about approaching people to try and sell them my own work or skills. I realized that, with the right attitude, many people are very open to hearing what you would like to tell them. I discovered how much I love meeting and talking to new people and we’ll see if that is a skill I can use more of.

Do you treat sales assistants any different now, after your own experiences as one?

I have two opposing views now about sales assistants, and anyone working in a customer service job (hotels, airlines, hospitals, etc.). I am now typically much more personal and friendly with them, and call people by their name if I see they are wearing a badge. I am often more curious about why they are working there and for how long. But I am also a much fussier shopper because we were well-trained in how to give good service and I know it’s not rocket science! I expect it, certainly in more expensive shops or environments, and am quick to leave or tell others that I was disappointed when service is poor; it’s clearly a reflection on management. If they refuse to train staff, customers take the brunt of it, and that’s wrong.

Thank you very much, Caitlin! All the best with your book and your future work.

If you missed my review yesterday, go and have a look now: review of Malled.

About the author

Caitlin Kelly’s new book, a look at life behind the cash wrap, is “Malled: My Unintentional Career In Retail”, is out April 14, 2011 from Portfolio.

A regular contributor to The New York Times since 1990, she has written for USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Glamour, More, and other publications in Canada and Europe.

A former reporter for the New York Daily News, Toronto Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette, she is the winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award (humor), and five journalism fellowships. Born and raised in Canada,
she has lived in the U.S. since 1988, and has also lived in England, France and Mexico.

Leeswammes’ experiences as a retail assistant and shopper

I worked as a supermarket cashier in my teens. I was a bit shy and it really helped me to learn to interact with many different types of people. Luckily, Dutch law required us to have coffee breaks in the morning and afternoon as well as a 30 minute lunch break!

As a shopper, I recently felt treated unpleasantly by a shop assistant. I had tried on a lot of items and hinted I may buy at least 2 or 3 pieces. But when I tried them one last time, in the privacy of the changing rooms, I decided that she hadn’t given me good advice, and decided to buy just one piece. And she said: “What, only ONE? And I never thought you’d buy THAT top!” and she didn’t look too pleased. In my opinion, she should have thought that, but never say it aloud.

I’d  love to hear your own experiences (bad or good) as a customer or as a retail employee!

Have YOU got any interesting experiences in retail?

About Leeswammes
I'm owner and editor at In my free time, I read and review books on my two blogs, Leeswammes' Blog and De Boekblogger.

16 Responses to Author Interview: Caitlin Kelly, Author of Malled

  1. Uniflame says:

    Hmm….. I had a job at the V&D when I was 15-16. I remember that they didn’t treat their staff that well. We often had to work in the storage the whole day without seeing much light. I also remember that they scheduled 15 year old personnel to work after 7PM while Dutch law stated (I don’t know if it still does) that minors are only allowed to work until 7PM. They were actually surprised that I knew of that law and refused to work past 7PM.

    I always disliked the customers that made a total mess while they were pulling out the items so I always try not to make a mess of the store when I shop.

    • Leeswammes says:

      It’s really bad that a nationwide department store wouldn’t keep to the rules about working after 7pm!

      I worked for AH the supermarket and they were good with their employees (as far as I was aware).

  2. Cindy says:

    Thank you, Judith, for sharing this.

  3. Birgit says:

    Thanks for this great interview!
    I just finished “Malled” myself this week and it brought back some memories for me too. While at Uni I had a part time job, first at a book shop (yay), later on at a coffeeshop (boo), so I had my share of good and bad experiences when it comes to retail.
    I loved working with books (we had a nice team and boss there) but I met more than my share of ignorant and condescendingly behavior of customers too, not to mention the way people made a mess out of the shop. The coffeeshop was worse though, being treated like a slave, no other word for it.
    And yes, I do look at retail a lot differently due to my experiences. I don’t assume that retail employees are idiots which a lot of customers do, sad as it is, and I treat them with respect.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Looking forward to your review, Birgit!

      The book shop sounds like it was OK to work. I can imagine a coffee shop being really bad, with people shouting at you for attention and just bossing you around.

  4. Carol Wong says:

    I went to a craft store and only bought 2 skeins of embroidery thread to finish a project. I did not have any money to buy anything else. The clerk said very loudly,
    “Is that all” and then when I was ready to go she said “Lets hope that you buy more next time’!

    • Leeswammes says:

      Store assistants should be (looking) happy that you buy anything at all in their shop, Carol. It’s really bad if they say “Is that all?” Whose money is being spent there, theirs? No, I don’t think so!

      • andy simon says:

        I loved “Malled” Do you know how I can get in touch with Ms. Kelly. I want to share some of my horror stories as a commissioned suit salesman for Jos. A. Bank.

  5. I worked in a few shops when I was in my teens and loved it. I liked interacting with the public and being helpful. Top of my list of hates today is shoddy or rude customer service in shops or restuarants etc – it is bad manners and if I am spending my money in your establishment then I damn well expect good service! Grrr.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Don’t get worked up, Boof, it’s OK. I feel the same. I want to be treated properly, too!

      I do sometimes see assistants (especially in food service), that look like the job is intellectually taxing for them. I forgive these people, it’s all they could ever hope to achieve and it’s good that they’re being employed at all (at the minimum wage, of course).

  6. Suzanne says:

    I worked in a clothing shop and it was always fun in the last hour before we closed on Christmas Eve to see the number of guys coming in to buy gifts for their wife/girlfriend/mother. As it was a plus-size store, a lot of the stuff was returned because the men overestimated the sizes just a little bit.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Funny, Suzanne! You would think the men would like to buy tight-fitting clothes and go for smaller sizes. I know my husband does, I can’t rely (solely) on his opinion when shopping with him!

  7. Thanks so much for including me here!

    I am shocked at any associate who would dare to berate a customer, and it’s happened to me as well when shopping. If I didn’t spend money there, something in that store — product or service — didn’t work well enough to persuade me to spend. That’s not my fault, but the store’s.

  8. Pingback: Promoting Your New Book: What It Really Takes (via Broadside) « Cheryl Andrews

  9. Carol says:

    Just finished reading the book. I work in retail for a national chain and can relate to many of the situations that Caitlin writes about. I’m thankful that my fellow sales associates are professional, well-educated, and most importantly, focused on customer service. I found the book to be poorly written. Repetitive stories (some are told three times in the course of the book) became tiresome and boring. The entire narrative seemed to meander and every now and then, we’d hear personal stories of growing up and being bullied, the life of a journalist, etc. I can’t say I’d really recommend this book to anyone – not even to some of my collegues in the retail sector.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Thanks for your comment, Carol. What a pity you didn’t like the book as much as I did. I do agree that some stories were repeated to some extend, but somehow it didn’t bother me.

      I enjoyed the personal stories, they did link into the retail narrative to a degree and I liked it that I learned about the person behind the book.

      Anyway, I’m not in retail so I probably read the book differently from you – hope your next book will be more enjoyable for you!

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